THE NEW NOMADS

How do you solve a problem as intractable as homelessness?

Other than that, regulators have been adamant about disallowing creature comforts in the waiting space. It's all the staff can do, says supervisor Diane Dirksen, to stay out of people's hair and "leave them what little dignity there is." There's no frisking at the door and only minimal rules. The Currie Avenue waiting space has hosted pretty much the same crowd since it opened December 21, with one influx of new faces--mostly women--when the Drake closed.

For now, you won't find families in Safe Waiting, though just how long that will remain the case is an open question. The closing of the Drake left just over 650 public and private family shelter beds available in Hennepin County; last August, 615 of those were used on an average night. Which is why the county plan specifically called for safe waiting space for "singles and families."

Even now, Safe Waiting is reaching its capacity of 200 by 11 p.m. most nights. The 30 or 40 people who show up after that find a locked door,. As summer picks up, Dirksen expects the place to fill up a lot earlier.

Meanwhile the Salvation Army runs a truck to deliver sandwiches and coffee to some of the encampments hidden along the river and under the freeway overpasses that ring downtown. When the service began, says the Army's Maj. Dave Dalberg, they dealt with fewer than 50 people each day; now the number is closer to 200.

"Maybe it will be like L.A.," muses Jose, who divides his time between the outdoors and the church basements, but won't go to Safe Waiting. "Have you been to L.A.? People just lie down on the sidewalk. Some of them have big cardboard boxes that they set up like houses. And people don't bother them. They just step around them."

That's about what the county board has been doing in the wake of the Drake's closing. County commissioners who returned calls for this story said they had no plans for an immediate response, and weren't sure one was needed. "The word we're hearing,"says Herb Frey of the Alliance of the Streets, a downtown drop-in center, "is that they really want to get out of the shelter business."

They aren't alone. At the national level, congressional support for low-income housing has been weak for years, and for the next budget year the Emergency Shelter Grant program is slated for a 25-percent cut. At the same time, some 40,000 people with drug or alcohol addiction stand to permanently lose their Social Security Disability income. Official talk--to the extent anyone's talking about these matters at all--is freighted with words like "compassion fatigue."

Locally, the political endgame is clear: Maybe, as someone pointed out during the 1994 debate on the new shelter policy, word will get back to Chicago. "There's no trouble with us sheltering our own Hennepin County homeless," as Commissioner Mike Opat summarizes the board's reasoning. "But there has been a significant number of people arriving from out of state whose first stop is the homeless shelter. And I do not believe that it's the obligation of the county board or any other local government to subsidize people's move from other parts of the country here with our tax dollars. People have to have a plan for their shelter if they're going to move here, is my contention." ("If these people were from Bosnia, we'd welcome them," scoffs Catholic Charities head Msgr. Jerome Boxleitner. "But not if they're from Detroit.")

The numbers suggest that not even a moat around Minnesota would quite solve Hennepin County's crunch: On average, between one-quarter and one-third of new shelter residents in any given month are from other states--Illinois, Wisconsin, and California chief among them. The largest share, about 50 percent, are from Minneapolis, and most of the remainder are from suburban Hennepin and other metro counties, where shelter space is close to nonexistent.

But what politicians are really worried about at the moment is something other than regular migration: It's the prospect of welfare-reform refugees. Local governments everywhere are watching Congress and the Clinton administration's moves toward sending public assistance back to the states. They know that there isn't a welfare-reform plan in the country that doesn't reduce or remove benefits at least to some people.

Even if Congress doesn't get around to passing a national welfare package, the Clinton administration has already granted reform waivers to 15 states, and more--including Minnesota--are on the waiting list. Minnesota's package, passed at the Legislature this spring, includes a 30-day residency requirement for new applicants. It's full of loopholes and will probably be found unconstitutional, but the message is clear.

Hennepin County has been down this road before. Back in 1985, when Jan Smaby of more recent public-television fame headed the welfare department, intake workers got a memo on "services to out-of-state residents." As a result of "an unusually large number of families and individuals arriving here with no resources [and] no previous connections with the community," it said, a new policy was being put in place: "Emergency help will consist of no more than one night's lodging, food to cover the trip, and a one-way bus ticket or the equivalent in gas money back to point of origin." People who wanted to stay would be given an appointment and "processed in the normal manner," but without shelter or any other emergency aid in the meantime.

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